Top Ten Favorite BRITISH EMPIRE Novels

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Below is a list of my current favorite novels set during the British Empire:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE BRITISH EMPIRE NOVELS

1 - Flashman in the Great Game

1. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald Fraser – Set between 1856 and 1858, this fifth novel in theFlashman Papers Series is about cowardly British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion.

 

2 - Shadow of the Moon

2. “Shadow of the Moon” (1957/1979) by M.M. Kaye – This is a love story between an Anglo-Spanish heiress and a British Army officer before and during the Sepoy Rebellion.

 

3 - The Bastard

3. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – Set during the final five years before the American Revolution, this tale is about Phillipe Charbaneau aka Philip Kent, the Anglo-French bastard of a nobleman forced to seek a new life in the American Colonies.

 

4 - Flashman and the Dragon

4. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – The eighth novel of the Flashman Papers reveals Harry Flashman’s experiences in China during the Taiping Rebellion and the British march to Peking during the Second Opium War.

 

5 - Noble House

5. “Noble House” (1981) by James Clavell – Set during two weeks in August 1963, this novel is about a British businessman in Hong Kong, who struggles to save his family’s company from financial ruin through a deal with an American corporate raider.

 

6 - Zemindar

6. “Zemindar” (1982) by Valerie Fitzgerald – This novel is about a young Englishwoman named Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her cousin and cousin-in-law to India to meet the latter’s wealthy half-brother. All three get caught up in the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion.

 

7 - Tai-pan

7. “Tai-Pan” (1966) by James Clavell – Set during the immediate aftermath of the First Opium War, this novel is about a British trader and his dealings with his family and enemies during the formation of Britain’s Hong Kong colony.

 

8 - Liberty Tavern

8. “Liberty Tavern” (1976) by Thomas Fleming – This novel is about a former British Army officer, who operates a New Jersey tavern and serves as guardian to his stepchildren during the American Revolution.

 

9 - The Far Pavilions

9. “The Far Pavilion” (1978) by M.M. Kaye – This bestseller is about a 19th century British Army officer, who had spent his childhood believing he was Indian. He experiences love with an Indian princess and war during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

 

10 - Forget the Glory

10. “Forget the Glory” (1985) by Emma Drummond – This novel chronicled the experiences of an unhappily married British Army officer, who falls in love with wife’s maid during a long journey from India to the Ukraine during the Crimean War.

“THE FAR PAVILIONS” (1984) Review

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“THE FAR PAVILIONS” (1984) Review

Thirty-four years ago saw the publication of an international best seller about a young British Army officer during the British Raj in 19th century India. The novel’s success not brought about a not-so-successful musical stage play in 2005, but also a six-part television miniseries, twenty-one years earlier. 

Directed by Peter Duffell for HBO, “THE FAR PAVILIONS” tells the story of Ashton “Ash” Pelham-Martyn, the only son of prominent British botanist Hillary Pelham-Martyn and his wife in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in 1853. After his mother dies of childbirth, Ashton is mainly raised by his ayah (nurse) Sita, who is a part of his father’s retinue. Cholera takes the lives of all members of the Pelham-Martyn camp some four years later, with the exception of Ash and Sita. The latter tries to deliver Ash to his mother’s family in Mardan, but the uprising of the Sepoy Rebellion leads her to adopt the slightly dark-skinned Ash as her son. Both eventually take refuge in the kingdom of Gulkote. While Ash forgets about his British ancestry, he becomes the servant for Crown Prince Lalji and befriends the neglected Princess Anjuli, Master of Stables Koda Dad, and his son Zarin. Ashton eventually leaves Gulkote after learning from the dying Sita about his true ancestry. After reaching his relatives in Mardan, Ash is sent back to Great Britain to live with his Pelham-Martyn relations. Within less than a decade, he returns to India as a newly commissioned British Army. Not only does he make new acquaintances, but also renews old ones – including the Princess Anjuli.

British costume dramas have always been popular with American television and movie audiences for decades. But aside from the Jane Austen phenomenon between 1995 and 2008, there seemed to be an even bigger demand for period pieces from the U.K. during the 1980s . . . a major consequence from the popular royal wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. HBO and Peter Duffell took M.M. Kaye’s 1978 bestseller and transformed it into a miniseries filled with six one-hour episodes. Aside from a few changes, “THE FAR PAVILIONS” was more or less a television hit. And in many ways, it was easy to see why.

First of all, Kaye’s story about a forbidden love story between a British Army officer viewed as an outsider by most of his fellow Britons and an Indian princess with a touch of European blood (Russian) was bound to appeal to the most romantic. Add an epic trek across the Indian subcontinent (in the form of a royal wedding party), action on the North West frontier and a historical event – namely the start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War – and one is faced with a costumed epic of the most romantic kind. And I am flabbergasted at how the story managed to criticize the British presence in both India and Afghanistan, and at the same time, glorify the military aspect of the British Empire. If I must be honest, M.M. Kaye not only wrote a pretty damn good story, but she and screenwriter Julian Bond did a solid job in adapting the novel for television.

Now, I said solid, not excellent. Even the most first-rate miniseries is not perfect, but I feel that “THE FAR PAVILIONS” possessed flaws that prevented it from being the superb production it could have been. The miniseries’ main problem seemed to be its look. I had no problems with Robert W. Laing’s production designs. His work, along with George Richardson’s art direction, Jack Cardiff’s superb cinematography, and Hugh Scaife’s set decorations superbly brought mid-to-late 19th century British India to life. I was especially impressed by the crew’s re-creation of the Rana of Bhithor’s palace, the cantonments for the Corps of Guides regiment and the royal wedding procession for the Rana of Bhitor’s brides – Princess Shushila and Princess Anjuli of Karidkote (formerly Gulkote). For a miniseries that cost $12 million dollars to produce, why shoot it on such poor quality film, whose color seemed to have faded over the past two or three decades? It seemed criminal that such a lush production was shot on film of bad quality.

As much as I admired Bond and Kaye’s adaptation of the latter’s novel, there were two aspects of their script that annoyed me. One, the screenplay skipped one of the novel’s best parts – namely Ash’s childhood in Gulkote. Instead, the story of his birth, early travels with Sita and his time in Gulkote were revealed in a montage that served as backdrop for the opening credits. And I was not that impressed at how the script handled Ash’s early romance with a young English debutante named Belinda Harlowe. I found it rushed and unsatisfying. More importantly, the entire sequence seemed like a waste of Felicity Dean and Rupert Everett’s (who played Ash’s doomed rival George Garforth) time. And some of the dialogue for the romantic scenes between Ash and Juli struck me as so wince inducing that it took me a while to unclench my teeth after the scenes ended.

I had other problems with “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. The casting of American actress Amy Irving as the adult Princess Anjli (“Juli”) produced a “what the hell?” response from me when I first saw the miniseries. That startled feeling remained after my last viewing. Irving simply seemed miscast in the role, despite a decent performance from her and her solid chemistry with lead actor Ben Cross. Another role that failed to match with the performer was that of British military administrator, Sir Louis Cavagnari, portrayed by John Gielgud. Cavagnari was 39 years old, when he met his death at the British mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gielgud was 79 to 80 years old when he portrayed the military officer . . . naturally too old for the role. The makeup department tried to take years off the actor with hair dye and make-up. Let us just say that Amy Irving was more convincing as an Indian princess than Gielgud was as a character 40 years his junior.

Aside from my quibbles about the casting of Amy Irving and John Gielgud, I have no complaints about the rest of the cast. Ben Cross did a superb job in his portrayal of the hot tempered and impatient Ashton Pelham-Martyn. Ash has always been a frustrating character for me. Although I sympathized with his feelings and beliefs, his occasional bursts of impatience and naiveté irritated me. And Cross perfectly captured all of these aspects of Ash’s nature. Despite my strong belief that she was miscast, I cannot deny that Amy Irving gave a subtle and well acted performance as Princess Anjuli. But I could never accuse Omar Sharif of being miscast. He did a superb job in his portrayal of the wise and very witty horsemaster of Gulkote/Karidkote, Koda Dad. Sharif made it easy to see why Ash came to regard Koda Dad as more of a father figure than any other older male. Although I believe that Irving was miscast as Princess Anjuli, I was surprised at how impressed I was by Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Anjuli’s uncle, Prince Kaka-ji Rao. The Anglo-Spanish actor did an excellent job of portraying a character from a completely different race. I suspect the secret to Lee’s performance was that he did not try so hard to sell the idea of him being an Indian prince. And Saeed Jaffrey was superb as the effeminate, yet manipulate and murderous courtier, Biju Ram. It seemed a pity that the miniseries did not explore Ash’s childhood. Audiences would have been able to enjoy more of Jaffrey’s performance.

Sneh Gupta was excellent as childishly imperious and self-absorbed Princess Shushila, Juli’s younger sister. She did a first-rate job of transforming Shushila from a sympathetic character to a childishly imperious villainess. Robert Hardy gave a solid performance as the Commandant of the Guides. Benedict Taylor was charming and outgoing as Ash’s only military friend, Walter “Wally” Hamilton. I really do not know how to describe Rosanno Brazzi’s performance as the Rana of Bhithor. I feel that too much makeup made it difficult for me to get a grip on his character. I was surprised to see Art Malik as Koda Dad’s son, Zarin. But his role did not seem big enough to produce a comment from me. Rupert Everett was excellent as George Garforth, the British civil servant with a secret to hide. Unfortunately, I was less than impressed with the miniseries’ portrayal of the story line in which he played a part.

I realize that “THE FAR PAVILIONS” has a good number of strikes against it. But its virtues outweighed its flaws. And in the end, it proved to be an entertaining miniseries, thanks to the lush production and the first-rate cast led by Ben Cross.

”SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957; 1979) Book Review

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”SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957; 1979) Book Review

I first became aware of British author, M.M. Kaye back in the early 1980s, when I read her famous 1978 bestseller, ”THE FAR PAVILLIONS”. Intrigued by the author’s portrayal of the British and Indian societies in 19th century, I read another one of her novels – namely ”SHADOW OF THE MOON”.

First published in 1957, ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” was re-released 22 years later to cash in on the success of ”THE FAR PAVILLIONS”. Like the latter, the novel was set in 19th century India. ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” told the story of Winter de Ballesteros, the only daughter of an aristocratic Spaniard whose family lived in India and the beloved granddaughter of an English earl. Orphaned at the age of six, Winter is forced to leave India and live with her mother’s family in England for the next eleven years. Betrothed at an early age to the debauched Conway Barton, the nephew-in-law of her great-aunt and an official of the East India Company serving as Commissioner of the Lunjore District, Winter finally leaves England to return to India in order to marry him. Barton’s military aide, Captain Alex Randall of the British East India Company (aka John Company), is assigned to act as escort for Winter’s return journey to the East.

Unfortunately for Winter, she encountered two misfortunes after her arrival in India – the discovery that her new husband is a debauched and overweight drunk who had married her for her fortune; and that she had fallen in love with Alex Randall. She is unaware that Alex has also fallen in love with her. While Winter struggled with her love for Alex and her unhappy marriage, events slowly came to a boil that lead to the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion in which the Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army rose against the British between May 1857 and June 1858. The violent outbreak of sepoy troops against the rule of the British East India Company forced both Winter and Alex to experience the violence that explodes throughout most of India and acknowledge their feelings for one another.

For a novel that is supposed to be about the famous Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58, most of it seemed to be set before the rebellion’s actual outbreak. The novel’s first six chapters focused upon Winter’s parents and her childhood in both India and England. The next thirty-four (34) chapters focused upon Winter and Alex’s journey to India, the introduction of Anglo society in India, Winter’s marriage to Conway Barton in Lunjore, the growing tensions between the British rulers and those who have much to resent them, Winter and Alex’s growing feelings for one another . . . well, you get the picture. By the time Winter, Alex and other British residents encounter the rebellion in Lunjore, Chapter 40 had arrived. Only Chapters 40 through 51 featured the actual rebellion.

Ironically, this does not bother me. I suspect that ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” is basically a romantic drama with a historical backdrop. M.M. Kaye was born in India to a family that had served the British Raj for generations. She spent most of her childhood and early years of marriage in India, which made her a strong authority on the Anglo-Indian and Indian societies of the British Raj. ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” is filled with strong historical facts about Great Britain during the first five decades in the 19th century, the East India Company, the Anglo-Indian and Indian cultures in the 1850s, and the politically charged atmosphere leading up to the Sepoy Rebellion and facts about the rebellion itself.

Reading the novel made it easy for me to see why M.M. Kaye had gained such fame as a historical novelist. Along with Susan Howatch, John Jakes, James Michener, I consider among the best historical novelists. Not only is ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” filled with interesting facts about the British Raj in the 1850s, it is a well-written romantic drama about two people who managed to find love despite the obstacles of a loveless marriage and political turmoil. The two main characters – Winter and Alex – are well written characters that managed to avoid the usually clichés found in many inferior romantic paperback novels. Well . . . Winter and Alex’s characterizations managed to avoid most of the clichés. There are a few clichés about them that seem very familiar:

*Winter’s age spans between 17 and 19 in most of the novel. Most heroines of historical tend to be between the ages of 16 and 17.

*The age span between Winter and Alex is 13 years – which is typical for the heroine and hero of most historical romances.

*The heroine, Winter, spends most of the novel stuck in an unhappy marriage with a much older man.

Despite these minor clichés, Winter and Alex turned out to be two very interesting and well-rounded characters. Surprisingly, I can say the same of the supporting characters, whether they be British or Indian. A few characters stood out for men – notably Alex’s cynical Indian orderly Niaz; a sharp tongued British socialite named Louisa “Lou” Cottar; an intelligent and intensely political Indian nobleman who becomes a dangerous enemy of the British Raj by the name of Kishan Prisad; Lord Carylon, an arrogant and temperamental English aristocrat with a strong desire for Winter; and the latter’s corrupt and narrow-minded husband, who lacks a talent for political administration.

Aside from a few clichés that are a part of Winter and Alex’s characterizations, I have a few other quibbles regarding the novel . . . or Kaye’s writing style. First of all, she had a tendency to describe a historical event or character in a slightly grandiose manner. One example featured the death of a famous military figure named John Nicholson. Kaye also had a bad habit of announcing an important sequence before it unveiled . . . taking away any moment of surprise for the reader. This was apparent in the following passage:

”Two more days to go,” thought Alex that night, leaning against the wall and watching a quadrille danced at the Queen’s Birthday Ball.

But there were no more days. Only hours.

In the following chapter, Winter, Alex and a host of other characters experience firsthand, the horror of the rebellion in Lunjore. I would have preferred if the beginning of the Lunjore rebellion had taken me by surprise.

Despite Kaye’s occasional forays into over-the-top prose, she created a sweeping and detailed novel filled with romance, adventure, historical accuracy and well-written characters. Although ”THE FAR PAVILLIONS” is considered her masterpiece, I must admit that ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” remains my favorite novel she has ever written.